My mother is Italian and my father is English, and they are still very much together. Recently I have started to think that this is because they are both atypical: my father is not particularly Euro-sceptical or fond of wildlife, my mother likes cool temperatures and rain. More importantly, they have spent the last 30 years in a country that is neither the UK nor Italy. They have both had to make sacrifices, and as a result their relationship is not one-sided.
In the past few months many of my 30-something, foreign female friends in Rome have broken up with Italian
men, leaving them bewildered and sometimes downright fearful. Should they go back home? Are they ever going to meet Mr Right, or at least someone they can be with long-term? In a pseudo-scientific quest to understand where we are going wrong, I have started collecting anecdotes and reflections from people with cross-cultural dating experience.
An American friend of mine, Lauren, went out with a Roman for over two years. They had plenty of problems that had nothing to do with nationality, but enough that did. You dont understand our concept of family, he would tell her. If you did you wouldnt be here, you would be with your
family in the United States. When I asked her what mistaken expectations Anglo-Saxon women dating Italian men have, she answered with a flat: That they can ever get their man away from their family. And what about the expectations Italian men have about Anglo-Saxon women? They think that they like the fact that you are outspoken, or independent, but eventually they wish that you would back
off, she says.
Barbara is Swedish, blonde and has a large personality. Though not short of suitors since moving to Rome, she is also proof that behaving the way she always has done is not necessarily a recipe for success abroad. Italian men think she looks like Anita Ekberg, but when she gives in to their wiles and games they often turn into insecure, jealous messes. One man she dated on and off for a while couldnt handle the fact that she had a social life and career that didnt involve him. When a gay male friend of hers came to stay, the Italian boyfriend insisted she sleep at his house and her friend alone at hers, just in case. And when she went away for
work, he sulked.
What exactly is an Italian man like? I asked my good Roman friend Paola for her opinion. She has been with an Italian man for nigh-on ten years, but has also had foreign boyfriends and has many foreign friends. Though there are exceptions, most Italian men correspond to the much-touted clichs, she declared. They are lazy, selfish, concerned with aesthetics, enamoured of their car and their mobile phone. They like to eat and have sex but above all they love their mothers and football. She believes that Italian men are a strange mixture of machismo and femininity, their positive qualities being that they are often good-looking, funny and life-loving. They also often make good cooks, and can be
Even more interesting, however, Paola has observed that foreign women in Italy, particularly those from Scandinavia, the US and the UK, are attracted to classic Latin macho types such as policemen, men these particular women might never dream of going out with on their home turf. So is it really a surprise that this kind of relationship often doesn't work?
Susanna, a psychoanalyst from Rome and herself the product of a successful American-Italian mix, sees things in more compassionate terms. The advantage and sticking point for inter-cultural couples is the same as for those of the same nationality, she explains. It all comes down to differences. If people are tolerant, differences can enrich, but if you let rigidity prevail, once the first flush of love has passed and reality hits, they can destroy a relationship.
I sought some advice from a Roman man, albeit one with a British mother. Antoninos tip to an Anglo-Saxon man or woman seeking an Italian partner is: Strenuously refuse to meet his or her close friends. They tend to be jealous, label-conscious and a source of bad advice. He also raises the important point that inter-cultural relationships are bliss if youre the one doing the travelling. In this case one assumes that the person travelling is only out to have fun, or at least has no real responsibilities and nothing to lose. But what if that isnt the case? What if he or she is in it for the long haul, speaks the language, and has picked up on much of the
When one of Antoninos closest friends says picking up foreign girls is a sort of national sport in Romes centre, it becomes clear that many Roman or Italian men consider Anglo-Saxon women a mite easy, or in any case not settling-down material. The foreign woman is considered strange because she is away from her family and country, but exciting because she is independent and has her own apartment they can go back to, whereas he still lives at home.
Yet some couples can and do overcome the intrusive families and the worlds-apart social mores. As my father says: If there isnt understanding, determination and a good dose of commitment, any couple, forget just the inter-cultural couple, is bound to fail. Susanna reiterates this notion, saying the inter-cultural relationships that work are those in which the individuals work hard and dont allow themselves to be scared off by each others differences. They have embarked on this adventure not knowing where it is going to take them; they are lucky, special and often courageous.